While burning incense is traditionally associated with Wicca and other forms of contemporary Witchcraft, the practice of smudging has been used in sacred rituals around the globe since ancient times. Both incense and smudging involve the use of dried herbs, but incense is usually made from a more complex blend of powdered herbs, oils, resins, and bark, which creates a richer, more perfume-like scent. Incense is often an ingredient in spellwork, and various types of incense have specific correspondences with particular magical purposes. Smudging, on the other hand, is usually done before spellwork, and generally has a singular purpose: purifying the energy of a space, or a person.
The particular herbs used may depend on the reason for the purification, which can range from healing from a physical illness to eliminating negative, “haunted” energy from a house. (Incense can also be used for purification, but because it doesn’t tend to burn as cleanly as simple dried herbs, many Witches prefer smudging for this purpose.)
These days, you can find smudge sticks— bundles of dried herbs tied with string— at most New Age shops, as well as other places where medicinal herbs are sold.These are easy to handle and tend to last a long time, so they can be used repeatedly.
However, you can also burn loose sprigs of dried herbs for a “single use” smudge, which requires a bit more caution, but allows you to choose exactly which herb( s) you want to burn, depending on your purpose. (The two workings described below make use of loose herbs, but you can substitute a pre-made smudge stick if you prefer.)
The easiest way to approach smudging with loose herbs is to find sprigs of the dried herbs, ideally four inches long at a minimum, that you can hold with your fingertips. However, you can also place the herbs inside a fire-proof dish, and then place the dish in a skillet, using the handle of the skillet to carry the smoldering herbs. Whichever method you choose, be sure to thank the spirits of the herbs before lighting them. Remember that it’s the smoke from the herbs that does the cleansing, so only light them enough to get them smoldering, rather than trying to set them completely on fire. As with anything involving flame, use extreme caution. And if you’re working indoors, be sure to leave at least one window cracked open so that the energy being removed from the space has a way to get out.
When the smudging is finished, you can put out the burning herbs in a pot of soil or leave them to burn out on their own in a heat-proof dish. Many smudging traditions use a feather to fan the smoke around the space, or over the person, being purified. This is symbolic of the element of Air.
Likewise, many use a sea shell to catch the ashes from the smoldering herbs, which honors the element of Water. (Earth and Fire are already represented by the herbs and the flame.)
Whether you incorporate these items is up to you— you can also use your hand to wave the smoke around, and a bowl to catch the ashes, if you like.
Lisa Chamberlain, Wicca Herbal Magic: A Beginner’s Guide to Practicing Wiccan Herbal Magic, with Simple Herb Spells